Prehistoric Road Trip

Dinosaur nerds like myself have a particular fondness for documentaries, with the best regarded capturing equal or greater reverence than Jurassic Park. Unfortunately, many media companies, even those with a supposedly educational focus, seem to view dinosaurs as a quick cash grab, churning out sloppily constructed “educational” programs that merely regurgitate pop culture hype.

In the past few weeks, the online paleo community has had the… opportunity to contrast these two types of shows side by side, with the airing of Discovery Channel’s “Dino Hunters” and PBS’s Prehistoric Road Trip. “Dino Hunters” has been roundly criticized by paleo enthusiasts, most prominently by the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, so I think I shall avoid dignifying it with my viewership.

On the flipside, Prehistoric Road Trip has been a joy to watch. Hosted by Emily Graslie, creator of the popular YouTube science show The Brain Scoop, this three episode series is a delightful exploration of the fossil history of the northern Great Plains.

In contrast to the over-dramatic, over-hyped fare typical of the Discovery Channel, Prehistoric Road Trip has a much more easy-going feel to it, not unlike riding along on an actual road trip. Far from boring, the casual nature of the show actually drew me in far more effectively than crappy 3D dinosaurs set to pre-packaged musical stings ever could.

Jurassic Scene - Prehistoric Road Trip
A still of one of Franz Anthony & Natalia Mercado’s lovely animated illustrations used throughout the show to depict the fossils as they would’ve appeared in life, though more on that later.

As the title suggests, the show follows Emily Graslie as she drives through the northern Great Plains region of the United States, visiting local paleontologists and fossil sites along the way. In a sense it’s not unlike a televised version of Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway, complete with a stop at a local fossil fest attended by enthusiasts and scientists alike. Viewers get a unique perspective on the discipline of paleontology this way, with a more intimate focus on the people who study it that one would not usually get in a program like this.

Somewhat uniquely, at several points Graslie shines a light on Native American participation and interaction with the practice of paleontology. All too often, many fossil hunters have conducted their excavations completely ignorant of the potential interests of local tribes, whether scientific or material, even when on their land. Our host interviews several people affiliated with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who are working to address this disparity. Paleontologists Ben Eagle and Sonya White Mountain discuss the abundant fossil remains found on their tribal lands, as well as their work for the Standing Rock Institute of Natural History, created after the Standing Rock Sioux became the first tribe in the U.S. to enact their own fossil management code. Graslie also discusses issues of land rights and repatriation with Lawrence Bradley, an advocate for Native Americans in the field of paleontology who literally wrote the book on the subject (Dinosaurs and Indians). After the success of Dino Nerds For Black Lives, it’s very encouraging to see that the activism won’t stop there, but has the chance to amplify many other historically marginalized communities in the momentum of the current zeitgeist.

Standing Rock Institute of Natural History Ben Eagle
Ben Eagle of the Standing Rock Institute of Natural History shows off one of the hyper-productive fossil sites on Standing Rock reservation land.

In lieu of the typical CGI monstrosities that plague most dinosaur documentaries, Prehistoric Road Trip instead opts for lovely illustrations by Franz Anthony, fleshed out and animated by Natalia Mercado. While the slapdash CGI of other programs tends to contribute to the “monsterization” of prehistoric life, these short little animations make it all seem normal and familiar. They also somehow manage to simultaneously exude an air of both casualness and professionalism that captures the viewers’ attention before they even realize it, as opposed to bashing them in the face with 90’s-style X-TREEEME visuals. Light-hearted and often humorous, these sequences perfectly complement the topics discussed, clearly visualizing them for the audience.

PETM gif
This particular clip depicts the sudden climactic shift of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, the last time the Earth experienced temperatures similar to what our current climate is trending towards. It’s a part of a larger discussion on how paleontology helps us know what to expect as our current climate crisis barrels down upon us.

I thoroughly enjoyed Prehistoric Road Trip, and in our unstable, uncertain world, it was quite soothing to kick back with a laid-back celebration of the fossil heritage that can be found practically in people’s own backyards. While it might trend a little more towards the side of talking heads than children such as my three-year-old might like, my five-year-old enjoyed it almost as much as I did, so I definitely recommend this program for grade school children as well.

Oh, and before I forget, be sure to check out the Prehistoric Road Trip interactive website as well! With a fossil road trip planning guide, exclusive interviews with paleontologists, and more, it’s a great way to continue learning about the history of our Earth. (If you’re planning on your own prehistoric road trip anytime soon and in need of a mixtape, I recommend any of the music in my Primeval Playlists. Give ’em a listen!)

Between excellent material, delightful graphics, interesting individuals, and an engaging host, I’m pleased to give Prehistoric Road Trip a very satisfied Dino Dad Stomp of Approval!

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